Thanks for the memories

2nd January 2004 at 00:00
Each week, The TES's My Best Teacher column pays homage to a person who helped set a then-unknown pupil on the path to glory. To kick off the new year in style, Harvey McGavin introduces the best of the best from 2003

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. But however they got there, all high achievers had teachers. And whatever they're good at, it's hard to find a successful person who doesn't acknowledge their influence.

Every week, The TES's My Best Teacher column records these recollections.

To read the words of these actors and athletes, dancers and designers, chefs and businessmen, is to see well-known faces in a way we don't often view celebrities. They are children, as shy or hyperactive, naughty or conscientious, as kids in any class.

And the teachers they describe - the "allies" and "mentors" who "nurture" and "encourage"-are "marvellous" and "remarkable", "loved" and "adored".

They might not have realised it at the time, but each was much more than just a teacher. So here are just a few of the recollections from 2003 of pupils who done good.

Jasper Conran, designer

Miss Watson, Port Regis prep school, Dorset

There was a certain naughtiness about Miss Watson, who taught piano at Port Regis, the prep school for Bryanston in Dorset. She was great. I loved her.

She had lots of outfits, mostly tailored tweeds, and marvellously pearlised handbags with shoes to match. She used to play the piano every morning in assembly, and as she played she wiggled her bottom. We were all mesmerised.

I can remember playing Chopin and telling her that what I really wanted to learn was syncopated beat because I wanted to be able to play Elvis Presley songs, and she broke off in the middle of the lesson and started playing Elvis. She did it well and obviously enjoyed it. But the Latin master came flying out of the room next door complaining that it wasn't the sort of music you expected to hear in a public school. Pamela Coleman

Marianne Faithfull, actress and singer

Mrs Simpson, St Joseph's convent, Reading

I went to St Joseph's convent in Reading when I was eight. The nuns were pretty cool but I came from a different background to most of the girls, which led to a few weird situations. I was a weekly boarder and I remember coming back from a weekend at my father's commune. He'd been holding life-drawing classes and I thought it was rather fun to draw naked ladies.

That didn't go down well.

Mrs Simpson was my English teacher. I think she recognised I was someone who needed to be made to feel special. I loved doing work for her because she was always appreciative. Once, when I was in despair through drug addiction in 1971, I looked Mrs Simpson up in the Reading phone book and called her. She was speechless, but she realised I was in pain and talked me through as best she could. She didn't have the answer and I remember as I put the phone down thinking: "If Mrs Simpson doesn't know, nobody does."

It was an important moment because that was when I knew I had to doit for myself.

I also adored the science teacher, Sister Aidan, although I hated the subject. Years later, I was on tour in Ireland and she came to see the show. I completely flipped when I heard she was there. I have this really filthy song, "Why D'Ya Do It", and I did something I've never done before or since: I edited the words so as not to offend her. Then she came backstage and said she'd particularly enjoyed the song with the dirty words. I realised I'd seriously underestimated her. Nigel Williamson

Steve Pankhurst, founder of Friends Reunited

Dr Wheaton, Orange Hill comprehensive, Edgware, north London

Doc Wheaton was a top bloke. He had a really good way of teaching history and making it fun. He had a thing for French and used to come out with lavish quotes of things Louis XIV had said. I remember writing an essay on the French Revolution, which I filled with French phrases just to please him. I got an A-plus - the only time I got one. At the bottom he wrote "tr s bon".

I still remember things like crop rotation and Bismarck. I got into music when I was at school, and me and my brother actually formed a joke band named after one of my essays called Bismarck and the Constitutional Crisis.

We've still got the tapes somewhere. One track was called "The Schleswig-Holstein problem". Harvey McGavin

Jacqueline Wilson, author

Miss Pierce, Coombe girls' school, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey

Miss Pierce was very fond of the kind of descriptive writing that does not come naturally to me, and she was a stickler for grammatical accuracy and structure. She said you must look upon your essay as a string of pearls, one idea leading to another, and your conclusion joining up with your opening.

She had natural authority; I don't remember her raising her voice. Three years ago, when I was signing books at Cheltenham literary festival, there was Miss Pierce at the end of a long queue of girls. She still had an air about her that made me sit up straight. Geraldine Brennan

Ronnie O'Sullivan, snooker player

Mrs Abbot, Wanstead high school, east London

Mrs Abbot, the deputy head, was my favourite. She had a soft spot for me and I loved her to bits. When she saw me on telly playing snooker when I was 14, she wrote to my mum and dad saying how proud they must be of me.

I've always been quiet and shy, but I was disruptive at school and in the third and fourth years ended up in a class with all the naughty kids. At lunchtimes, three or four of us would go down to the snooker club, where I'd play for money to buy us fish and chips and a Coke. We were often 15 or 20 minutes late getting back for lessons. I got a very bright kid called Fasel Nadir to do my homework for me for a fiver a time. I told him not to make it too good or the teachers would know it wasn't mine. I didn't bother to copy it out in my handwriting because he was in the top group and it was marked by different people. Nobody ever found out. PC

Fatima Whitbread, athlete

Margaret Whitbread, St Chad's school, Tilbury, Essex

I was abandoned as a baby. The neighbours reported to police that three days had gone by and this baby was still crying in an empty flat in Islington. They smashed the door down and I was taken to hospital with malnutrition. My life in care started in a children's home in Hertfordshire. Nobody did us any harm, but there were no cuddles or kisses either. I didn't know my biological parents existed. There was nothing to signify they were alive: no birthday cards or Christmas cards.

I was playing netball for my school against a school called St Chad's when I met Margaret Whitbread. She was a PE teacher at St Chad's and was umpiring the match. I was volatile and often lippy to teachers, and I was giving her a terrible time, questioning all her decisions.

She warned me and then warned me again until one of the St Chad's team, who I knew, told me: "You'd better do as she says because this is one adult who means what she says." I managed not to get sent off and thought little more of it.

Not long afterwards, I decided I wanted to learn the javelin and was shocked to be introduced to Mrs Whitbread as the coach at the local club.

When she saw me she said: "You want to throw the javelin? Well, any cheek like I had on that netball court and you won't be joining our group." It was the start of a relationship that changed my life. I was 13 when she asked me if I wanted to meet her family. We got on great, and there were more visits. One day, she asked if I wanted to be adopted. I had found my mother - it is difficult to describe how much that love and security has meant to me. Chris Bunting

Brendan Barber, TUC general secretary

Mr Rigby, St Mary's grammar school, Crosby, Merseyside

Mr Rigby was a lovely man who never needed to use physical punishment. He taught maths and he managed to convert me from a disastrous student with zero confidence and poor exam results into someone who enjoyed the subject and sailed through to get a top grade at O-level.

He made maths fun and we all looked forward to his lessons. He used his scouse humour to great effect, yet he cracked people along so they were learning all the time. He set us problems that related to our lives and he had a nickname for every lad in the class. Then I became a teacher myself.

I taught English, Latin, history and geography at a Catholic missionary school in Ghana through Voluntary Service Overseas. The pupils ranged in age from 12 to 29 and I was just 18. I coped by emulating Mr Rigby, and using humour in the classroom. PC

Daniel Bedingfield, singersongwriter

Frances Piercy, Alpha community school, Peckham, south-east London

My best teacher was Frances Piercy. She graduated with honours from Cambridge and came to teach at Alpha. She was about 24, with a massive smile, very jolly, bouncy and chummy, with a lisp. Frances ignited English for me.

I was hyperactive as a kid, although I actually was desperate to behave. I don't know how people coped with it, but Frances was a genius. I discussed everything with her - she was a friend and mentor and she helped me with every subject. There are probably few greater influences than Frances. She had a gift that set me free to discover a voice and find the emotional closure to write songs. People from all over the world have said: "You've written exactly what I'm feeling, exactly what I'm going through now. How did you know?" And I say: "Thank you Frances, thank you so much." After college I did freelance web design and worked at The TES for two months - that's when I wrote "Gotta Get Thru This", walking across Tower Bridge after work. Judy Parkinson

Wayne Sleep, dancer

Dame Ninette de Valois, Royal Ballet School, south-west London

When it became obvious that I wasn't going to reach the required height for a dancer, I became very depressed. I stopped growing at 5ft 2in when I was 17 and was going to take a pill that would make me taller. Dame Nina wouldn't hear of it. She thought I was destined to be a dancer and assured me I had a future. She said: "You're just going to have to jump twice as high and spin twice as fast as anybody else."

In 1981, not long before she died, at the age of 101, she was a studio guest when I was on the television show This is Your Life, and described me as "the greatest virtuoso dancer the Royal Ballet has ever produced". I was so proud. PC

Dwain Chambers, athlete

David May, St Mark's primary school, Islington, north London

It was a tough school, really tough. We were always chasing round the school premises being bad. I think that's where I got my speed from. I was born with it but school nurtured it in me. Our headteacher was David May.

He was my favourite teacher because he was the one who encouraged me to go on and do sport. He was the person who said "you'll go far". I suppose I was destined to be a sprinter. I wasn't good at the academic stuff; it just didn't seem to stimulate me if it had no physical activity in it. Matthew Brown

Mel C, singer

Olwen Grounds

My dance teacher, Olwen Grounds, was the most influential teacher in my life. I spent eight years at her dancing school, going after school once or twice a week and all day on Saturdays. I liked her because she was very strict. People tell me now that I'm disciplined, and that's certainly one of my strengths. I'm sure Olwen had a lot to do with that.

I was eight when I first went to her school. I wanted to go dancing so much that I badgered my mum for ages. Eventually, she found Olwen's school for me, and she paid for it with the family allowance. Olwen's classes were all about hard work. I can't say we were close, but we really cared about each other; we had a funny love-hate relationship.

Olwen died of cancer about a year into my time at Doreen Bird college of performing arts in Sidcup. When I was at Doreen Bird's we had pas de deux lessons. That's when I felt the grandest, being lifted up in the air. I used to think, "I hope she can see me now". JP

Warren Mitchell, actor

Mr Sinden, Bowes Road school, Palmers Green, north London

My teachers were all marvellous. But the one I remember with great affection was a tyrant called Mr Sinden. When we went into his class aged nine or 10 he said to us: "You'll all be taking the scholarship exam next June and you will all pass; I have never had a failure. Heaven help any one of you here who jeopardises my record."

He then hounded us for the whole year, the net result being that we all passed the scholarship exam. I realised that the man loved us and intended that we should have a good start in life. HM

Quentin Blake, illustrator

JH Walsh, Chislehurst and Sidcup grammar

My most influential English teacher was J H Walsh. He was good at getting you to write about poetry and books as a critic rather than regurgitating facts. Mr Walsh gave me an independence of thought and you can't have anything better than that. PC

Sally Gunnell, athlete

Mrs Kay, Chigwell county primary school, Essex

Mrs Kay didn't look as if she did much sport, but she loved it. She was a class teacher and she ran all the sport in the school. She coached us in netball, rounders, swimming and athletics. She had so much time for us.

When I did This Is Your Life they tried to get in touch with Mrs Kay, and that's when I found out that she had passed away. She was probably in her fifties when she was teaching me. It would have been lovely to have met her again. People in the village used to say she would be glued to the telly watching me, but I don't think she ever knew it was all down to her. HM

Gordon Ramsay, chef

Dickie Vale, Stratford-upon-Avon high school

When I failed my 11-plus, Dickie Vale, my sports teacher, was delighted. It meant I stayed in the school football team and he was able to nurture my talent so that a few years later I was spotted by a Glasgow Rangers scout and became a professional, until injury forced me to change careers. Dickie was an amazing guy, an inspirational coach with incredible vision. When I was a boy, my aggression was channelled into my feet. I never got into trouble for bad behaviour at school. Honestly. I've made up for it since, though these days I'm not manic, just obsessive. I have always been a perfectionist. PC

Carol Black, president, Royal College of Physicians

Mr Gosling

The headmaster of the primary school in our Leicestershire village was a man called Mr Gosling. He was a classicist from Oxford and passionately interested in children from poor backgrounds who he considered should go to university. Nobody in my family had been to grammar school, let alone university. The only books we had in the house were a Bible and a set of Charles Dickens. You left school at 15 and went into the hosiery factory, or the boot and shoe factory.

What he did was to tell parents you were going on to sixth form. When they said they couldn't afford it, he would buy uniform out of school funds. He was such a formidable character that most parents gave in. Until he died, we all used to go back and see him. He had a housekeeper called Margaret, and you'd ring up, and go round, and he would entertain you to tea. He lived for the children who went through his school. They were his family. Hilary Wilce

Sanjeev Bhaskar, comedian

Howard Dunton, Hertfordshire University

Howard Dunton, who taught marketing when I was at Hertfordshire University doing a business studies degree, was the wittiest teacher I ever had.

Looking back, his lectures were the perfect training ground for someone who wanted to be creative and funny. Howard was a natural comedian - sharp, quick-witted - and his lectures were peppered with humorous jibes. We had an instant rapport; sometimes the rest of the class would look on in amazement wondering what was going on as we exchanged banter.

While I was at university I started writing and performing terrible stand-up routines, which I tried out in the college bar, and Howard was the only person who came along. PC

Claire Rayner, writer

Miss Peach, City of London school

It was a public school, but the teaching wasn't very good. Except for the remarkable Miss Peach, who taught English. She had a perfect Oxford accent - she pronounced "off" as "orf" - and I liked her a lot.

One day when it was raining, instead of going out to play hockey, we were allowed to stay in the form room. The other girls were playing Glen Miller records and dancing, but I sat in the corner reading Pride and Prejudice.

Miss Peach spotted me and from then on plied me with books. Apart from writers like Thackeray, Dickens and Austen, she gave me great stuff like Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Miss Peach made no judgments about books being "suitable" or "unsuitable". She taught me to read and that's how I learned to write. PC

Heather Small, singer

Miss Douglas, Hammersmith county girls' school

I particularly enjoyed studying Great Expectations with Miss Douglas. As I've got older all that I learned from that book still holds good. Life is never what it seems, and even when all the clues are staring you in the face, it takes a while for the penny to drop. It can be a painful process.

Music didn't feature very strongly in my school years. There was a group of black girls who wanted to form a band and have instrument lessons after school, but they didn't get anywhere with their request. I feel they should have been encouraged more. When I asked the music teacher if I could join the school choir, she looked at me and said: "Can you sing?" Her response dampened my enthusiasm and I never did sing in the choir. Karen Faux

Jeremy Clarkson, TV presenter

Tony Price, Repton school, Derbyshire

I owe a great debt of gratitude to Tony Price, who was my housemaster for the final three years I was at Repton. He was my ally and a sort of father figure. He had the right attitude because if I'd had one of the more authoritarian housemasters I would never have lasted at the school as long as I did. He wasn't at all strict. Although smoking was banned he'd walk into my smoke-filled study and say nothing. His parting words, as I left, were: "When you get sent to borstal, try to make it the one nearby so we can come and visit you." But he said it with a glint in his eye. PC

Photographs: Nick Cunard; Music Pictures; Russell Sach; Neil Turner; Camera Press; Rex

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